Ten years ago, a lady named Debbie asked me if I was studying Spanish because I wanted to be a missionary in South America. At the time it was a seriously long bow to draw – I in fact had no better reason for studying Spanish other than Age of Empires and the Spanish national football team.
Of course, I found Spanish as a language to be beautiful to the ear, the mind, the tongue. But I really didn’t have any particular interest in Latin American culture. I had even less interest in becoming a missionary.
Debbie and I are unlikely to cross paths again, but what she said turned out to be rather prophetic. Five years after that conversation I was in Ecuador. And I was a missionary.
Looking back, that decision changed everything for me. Six months became two years.
More importantly, it put me on a trajectory away from my “normal” and my expectations.
I no longer wear the missionary label. But, ten years on from that random conversation and five years after first landing in Ecuador, I am not the person I thought I would be. I cannot ever be the kind of person I thought I would be.
I have been back in Australia a whole year, now.
We talk about re-entry often enough, in missionary circles as well as in university exchange briefings. You’ve probably heard of reverse culture shock.
Plenty of people spend time overseas – a gap year, a posting, a working holiday, post-grad studies. Then they come home and get on with their lives.
That hasn’t been the case for me. My re-entry discomfort has been neither acute nor constant, but it is embedded and present enough to feel chronic. Reverse culture shock? It’s more like a permanent dissonance that is only partially cultural.
It’s not that everything sucks and I hate being back – far from it. There are so many good things about being here. It’s just, well, like I said, not quite right. And I wonder if this is simply something I will have to live with for the rest of my life, wherever I happen to be.
Re-entry is hard because it isn’t just a passing thing you wait out, like a cold, until that day you and your home country are in sync again. Sure, you change as a person and you need time to readjust to your old surroundings. But sometimes you change and there is no readjusting.
Here, in the city where I grew up, sitting in the house where I grew up, it is with a mixture of sadness and excitement that I try (again) to own the fact that I don’t fit here anymore. Haven’t for some time, actually.
I say this with sadness because I want to belong, and here’s a good place for that. It’s sadness because when I am here I am so conscious that I will never achieve what this culture considers “success” – we want different things. I feel both inadequate and unsatisfied.
I say this with excitement because it means those indicators of success do not guide my steps, it means the world is calling me. It’s an excitement generated by a blend of trepidation and optimism about what this will mean for my life.
The “anniversary” of my return from Bolivia has put re-entry on my mind. But if I’m honest, the thinking and the emotions I’m trying to articulate go beyond cultural shock/dissonance and into the spiritual and existential.
The road looks different now I’ve walked it in faith through different continents. It doesn’t even really look like the same road anymore. Definitely not the one I thought I was on ten years ago, figuring out how to respond to Debbie’s preposterous question.
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us …
– Hebrews 12:1
Header image is a still from the film Gravity, found on the website of The Geographic Society of Chicago.